JAKARTA — Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to call an emergency meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers to discuss the situation in Rakhine State should be seen an opportunity, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said today. The collective of regional lawmakers praised the State Counsellor’s decision, noting that it reflected an important shift toward more openness on the issue, but urged ministers who attend to work to resolve the crisis and not allow it to be swept under the rug.
“This meeting reflects a recognition that the ongoing Rohingya crisis is, indeed, a regional concern. But the meeting should not be treated as a form of political cover for the Myanmar government. ASEAN foreign ministers should use the opportunity to address the crisis head-on. They must impress upon Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi the importance of protecting civilian life and ensuring that abuses are properly and urgently investigated,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament.
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who also serves as Foreign Minister, has invited her ASEAN counterparts to Myanmar for an informal meeting on 19 December to discuss developments in northern Rakhine State. Since a 9 October attack on police outposts in the area, the Myanmar military has been engaged in so-called “clearance operations,” which have targeted Rohingya civilians and involved severe rights violations, according to reports.
On 13 December, Human Rights Watch published new satellite imagery, which indicated that over 1,500 buildings have been burned down in the area in the past two months and revealed patterns suggesting that the Myanmar military is responsible for the arson. According to the latest UN estimates, around 30,000 people, mostly Rohingya, have been displaced as a result of the violence, and 130,000 remain without access to critical humanitarian aid. Aid agencies and independent journalists have been barred from the area since the start of the military operations in October.
Until now, the Myanmar government, including Aung San Suu Kyi, has downplayed the severity of the situation, defended the military’s actions, and admonished the international community for its criticism. A government-appointed a commission tasked with investigating the situation concluded a five-day visit to some affected areas on Tuesday and reported that authorities have “followed the law” in their actions. But the findings, combined with the fact that commission is headed by Vice President Myint Swe, a retired lieutenant general in the Myanmar Army, undermine any claims to independence and reinforce the need for a truly independent inquiry into possible atrocities, APHR said.
“In the context of new revelations about the military’s actions in Rakhine State, it is even more important that ASEAN foreign ministers address core issues and push for a regional investigation. The Myanmar government and military must immediately allow for such an investigation, which should include outside observers and empower investigators to visit all affected areas and interview victims,” Charles Santiago said.
“The investigation should also include NGOs from within ASEAN, as well as individuals who are familiar with torture issues. If violence is proven, compensation must be provided and security forces involved must be brought to justice. ASEAN foreign ministers at the meeting should also explore the possibility of setting up an interim ASEAN-led force to ensure peace in northern Rakhine State,” Santiago added.
ASEAN has a clear stake in resolving the crisis in Rakhine State, given that Myanmar government policies have previously contributed to a regional refugee crisis, APHR said. These policies, which were established under previous governments, led to outflows of asylum seekers, which human traffickers have exploited to abuse victims throughout Southeast Asia. In addition to pressuring the Myanmar government to change course, parliamentarians urged all ASEAN member states to fulfill their obligations by protecting Rohingya refugees in their own countries and ensuring they have access to basic services.